Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It causes your body’s immune system to attack the cells that line your joints. Your joints become stiff, swollen, and painful. If you don’t keep the inflammation under control, you may develop deformities.

RA can be progressive. This means it can get worse over time. Joint damage occurs when the inflamed joint lining cells damage the bone. Inflammation can also make the tendons around the joints weak. There’s no cure for RA, but treatments can ease symptoms and keep the disease from getting worse. Here are some questions and topics to talk about with your doctor so they can help make your treatment as effective as possible.

Why does RA hurt?

The inflammation from RA causes painful swelling. Nodules can form at pressure points, such as your elbows. These can occur almost anywhere on your body. These nodules can become tender and painful.

What are my medical options for managing pain?

Your doctor will go over several strategies for managing your pain. These include prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as other medical treatments. All of these medications have their own set of side effects. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits.

Pain relievers

You likely already have nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, in your medicine cabinet. These drugs include common over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). These medications are good for relieving pain and inflammation.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also be used to relieve pain, but it will not help with inflammation. It can be used alone or in combination with NSAIDs.

DMARDs and biologics

Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) work by reducing the inflammation that can cause pain. These drugs actually slow the progression of RA and can prevent permanent damage. Biologic drugs specifically target the cells of the immune system and pro-inflammatory molecules involved in inflammation.

Learn more: Rheumatoid arthritis DMARDs list »

Corticosteroid injections

Corticosteroids can be injected directly into the joint. They can relieve pain and inflammation for weeks at a time. Trigger point injections involve injecting a numbing medication into your muscle. They may help with RA-related muscle pain.

Alternative treatments

Your doctor may refer you to practitioners who specialize in alternative treatment options. Alternative treatments include massage, acupuncture, or topical electrical nerve stimulation. Ask your doctor about any risks involved in alternative treatments. Also ask about the results you might expect from treatment.

What can I do in my day-to-day life to help manage pain?

While medications are often the first line of treatment for RA, there are also things you can do at home to help ease your pain and symptoms. Sometimes, simple changes to your routine can make a big difference in your pain level.

Changing your household gadgets can make daily activities easier on your hands. For example, lever door handles and electric can openers are easier than door knobs and manual can openers. Ask your doctor about other gadgets and tools that can make daily tasks easier for you.

Assistive devices such as canes or walkers can reduce the weight and stress on joints in your lower body. Ask your doctor if one of these is a good option for your lifestyle.

Try rearranging your cabinets and closets. Putting the items that you use most within easy reach means you can get to them without stooping or straining. You can also try changing your schedule. Take advantage of the times of day you feel best and get things done during those times. Take naps during the day to help you avoid fatigue.

Talk with your doctor about what else you can do at home to help manage your pain.

How should I exercise?

You likely know that overdoing any activity can make joints tender and sore. However, it may be a surprise to learn that sitting or lying still for long periods of time can make joints even more stiff and painful. Ask your doctor about what types of exercise are safe for you. Also ask them which forms of fitness would be most effective for your RA.

In general, low-impact or no-impact exercises are good choices for strengthening muscles and loosening joints. Water aerobics and swimming are good options. Look up if there are exercises classes in your area. If not, ask your doctor how you can exercise at home. Gentle stretching may also aid in pain relief. As a bonus, you may even lose some weight. Weight loss could make a big difference in the amount of stress on your joints and could help ease your pain.

Pain can be a part of RA, but that doesn’t mean it has to control your life. Think about other ways you can make daily tasks easier. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions about how you can manage your RA pain and maintain your quality of life. Both medications and lifestyle changes may help keep your RA symptoms in check.